Writing Tip — Show, Don’t Tell

narrativew-794978_1280If you’ve been writing for more than a week, I’m sure you’ve heard or read the advice “show, don’t tell”. I’d heard it so much, it had lost almost any meaning. I only understood it to mean “be descriptive”. But at the Ohio Christian Writers Conference in Cincinnati, I learned what agents and publishers actually expect.

In her session on the subject, Tessa Emily Hall said that “show, don’t tell” means I can only write what the point-of-view (POV ) character experiences or thinks in that precise instance in the story. I call it virtual-reality POV. The writer is limited to what the POV character can take in through his or her senses and his or her knowledge and thoughts at the “present” moment.

If you write in first-person POV or third-person POV from a single character per chapter, this concept makes sense. If you use third POV, omniscient, I am not sure how this works.

Once I grasped the concept, I realized why it has been so hard for me to master.

The Friendly Narrator

My favorite stories, from Dr. Watson to Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders are told in first-person POV, but the story is related as a past event.

For example, Dr. Watson often begins a story by describing how he’s been reviewing his notes of his recent adventures with Sherlock Holmes and has decided to describe in detail this particular tale.

Readers discover at the end of The Outsiders that the novel is Ponyboy’s English assignment, so he comments on the story with hindsight. Archie Goodwin often finishes a Nero Wolfe story by stating that a few days ago, the verdict came in on the case they solved.

This style makes me feel like the narrator is a friend I am sitting down with for a private chat. I also love how the style lets the narrator directly address the reader.

From Plot It Yourself by Rex Stout: 

Nero Wolfe is investigating cases of plagiarism and realizes all three cases are the work of one person because of how the copycat uses paragraphs. His right-hand man Archie Goodwin says, at the end of a long paragraph: “The next sentence is to be, ‘But the table-load of paper, being in the office, was clearly up to me,’ and I have to decide whether to put it here or start a new paragraph with it. You see how subtle it is. Paragraph it yourself.”

From The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton:

Ponyboy Curtis, who is called a greaser because he lives on the wrong side of the tracks, says, “Incidentally, we don’t mind being called greaser by another greaser. It’s kind of playful then.”

From “The Killer Christian” by Andrew Klavan:

“If ever you see a man put his fingers in his ears and whistle Dixie to keep from hearing the truth, you may assume he’s a fool, but if he put his fingers in your ears and starts whistling, then you know you are dealing with a journalist.”

This was the style I was using in my novel. My main character Junior was telling the story as if it was something that happened in the recent past. Writers can still use this style — Mr. Klavan wrote his story in 2007 — but in YA, it seems like not only are more stories written in first-person POV, but also in present tense. You can’t get more immediate and in the moment than that.

So I have been reviewing my manuscript under a microscope, seeing if I can master this technique. In my next tip, I’ll recommend two books that have helped me understand all the intricacies of”show, don’t tell.”

Writing Tip — Favorite Author — Lessons from Melville Davisson Post

new-river-gorge-1286064What I learned from reading the Uncle Abner mysteries by Melville Davisson Post is how the setting establishes the mood of the story. Mr. Post’s description of the weather and Appalachian mountains in West Virginia pulls me into the story so completely that I experience the setting with the narrator Martin, Abner’s nephew.

From “The House of the Dead Man“: “It was a morning out of Paradise. crisp and bright. The spiderwebs glistened on the fence rails. The timber cracked. The ragweed was dusted with silver. The sun was moving upward from behind the world. I could have whistled out of sheer joy in being alive on this October morning and the horse under me danced.”

From “A Twilight Adventure”: “There is a long twilight in these hills. The sun departs, but the day remains. A sort of weird, dim, elfin day, that dawns at sunset and envelops and possesses the world.”

From “The Riddle“: “That deadly stillness of the day remained, but the snow was now beginning to appear. It fell like no other snow that I have ever seen — not a gust of speck or a shower of tiny flakes, but now and then, out of the dirty putty-colored sky, a flake as big as a man’s thumb-nail winged dow and lighted on the earth like some living creature.”

In each case, describing the weather sets the mood. Martin’s exaltation of the October morning reveals his mood, just as his description of the snow shows his unease. I really like the words chosen to describe the snow because in current times, when people see snow, they get excited or grumble, but they usually don’t dread it.

post_abner_des_cov_cmykTwilight is the perfect setting for “A Twilight Adventure” and not just because of the title. Abner and Martin come across a lynching party. The men responsible think they have the culprits, but just like the twilight can make objects appear different from what they look like in full daylight, Abner shows that the evidence the men believe is conclusive actually has several interpretations.

In my novel, when I wanted a peaceful scene, I chose a summer evening bathed in golden light. Mellow light for a mellow mood. For a tense scene, I can write about the stillness before a storm.

Or I can use the weather to contradict the action or the characters. In “The House of the Dead Man”, the glorious fall morning is the back drop for a confrontation in a cemetery. I can write about a storm, but instead of describing it in terms of fear, I write about kids playing in it.

Is weather important to your style of writing? How do you use it to set the mood of your story?



Writing Tip — Death to all Adjective and Adverbs!

words-1034410_1280Or at least some serious injury. This post at Almost an Author talks about how the current writing style tries to eliminate most adjectives and adverbs. After I got Miss Hall’s response to my question, I realized that the new style poses both advantages and a unique danger to writers, especially to beginning ones.


The current style is more descriptives. When a strong verb can do the work of a verb and an adverb, then eliminating the adverb makes sense. The sentence is both more descriptive and shorter.

He walked home slowly.

He trudged home.

And some words have been so overused that they don’t hold any meaning any more. “Really” and “suddenly” can’t be used, except in dialogue.


But in the case of the example Miss Hall provides, the description grows from 23 words with adjectives and adverbs to 39 without them. The passage is more descriptive, and longer is not necessarily worse. But I think writers can very easily develop the written equivalent of long-windedness if we don’t exercise caution when replacing adjectives and adverbs.

So what’s a writer do do? Here is my advice.

First draft

Use as many adjectives and adverbs as you want if they express most clearly what you are describing. If the lettuce is green, fragile, ruffled, and crispy, put it all down. In a first draft, getting the words down is more important than what words you put down.


As you edit your first draft, determine which adjectives and adverbs you should replaces and how succinctly you can replace them. If your replacement description is longer than the adjectives or adverbs, make sure it doesn’t effect your pacing.

Read recently published books and see when and how they use adjectives and adverbs. The current style allows more adjectives than adverbs. I find, especially when describing the physical characteristics of a character, there is just no other good way to go about it except by using adjectives.

My main character describes his eyes as “boring” and “blue”. I don’t know how else to describe the color and by adding “boring”, the reader learns a little about how my main character sees himself.

If you would like to learn about the basics of how to use adjectives and adverbs, these two articles will show you.

memo-29039_1280Personal Note

If you read the comments below Miss Hall’s article, you will find one that disagrees strongly with the new style. I don’t think it’s better or worse. It’s just what publishers believe people will read. Three thousand years ago, if you wanted to tell a long story, you wrote an epic poem. Now you write a triple-decker novel. One’s not better than the other. Both want to meet the needs of the reading public of that time.

Who knows? If fifty years, writers may be passing death sentences on strong verbs.


Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑